The first Sunday of Advent – December 1, 2013
Preacher: Anne Marie Roderick, St. Michael’s Seminarian, M.Div. student at Union Theological Seminary
Happy New Year! You may not have woken up this morning with the beginning of the liturgical calendar on your mind, but here it is. Today is the first day of the church year, which means it is also the beginning of the first liturgical season—Advent. Today marks the first of four Sundays during which churches across the world will await of the arrival of Jesus.
When I was growing up, we celebrated Advent with chocolate candy calendars, lit candles, and joyous Christmas singing. The first time I ever spoke in front of my congregation was on an Advent Sunday when children were invited to offer reflections on an advent theme—hope, joy, peace, or love. I always associated Advent with the coming of Christmas; the coming of gifts, the coming of family, the coming of special foods, and the coming of the little baby Jesus who magically appeared in my family’s household crèche each Christmas morning.
In our modern practice, many of us think of Advent as a waiting period for Christmas. We sing carols, we use calendars to count down the days; we plan trips, or prepare our own homes for visits with family and friends. Coincidentally, the beginning of Advent usually falls pretty close to Black Friday; many of us begin our holiday shopping at the start of the church year and continue all through the season of Advent. But Advent is really about a lot more than simply waiting for Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, Christmas is a big deal—it is the celebration of the birth of Jesus and therefore the starting point for each of us in our lives as Christians, but it is also, in many ways, just a commemoration of something that already happened. Christmas happens every year, no matter what—we learned that from the Grinch who tried to steal it and failed. But Advent, unlike Christmas, only really happens when we choose to observe it. Advent is a period of active waiting. And it doesn’t just look forward to the birth of the baby Jesus—it looks toward the birth of an entirely new world.
The word Advent is a Latin word meaning “to come” or “coming.” It is often translated from the Greek words Epiphineia—epiphany—or parousia, presence. The season of Advent is about the coming of the presence of Christ, or the coming of the epiphany, the revelation of Christ as God’s chosen son. Advent is not necessarily about the coming of Jesus in flesh; it is about the Coming in Glory.
The readings for this week actually don’t mention the birth of Jesus at all. We begin the church year not with birth and new things, but with anticipation of the “other coming,” the final coming of Christ and warnings about the end of the world, as we know it. It’s hard to talk about something like the “final Coming” at a place like Saint Michael’s. How many of us think about the return of Jesus in our daily faith lives? How many of us actually believe that we could experience the coming of Christ in our lifetime, or that it will ever be a literal event? Still, the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer remind us again and again that Jesus will return. In a few moments when we recite the Creed we will affirm our belief that Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” So what is the Coming of the Lord really about, and what does it mean in this season of Advent?
The passage we heard in Matthew is unsettling: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Matthew goes on to compare the coming of the Lord to the flood that wiped out the entire world except for Noah and his family; he says it will be as if two people are standing together and all of the sudden one will get snatched away; he compares it to a thief coming in the middle of the night. This is the Gospel reading that is supposed to kick off the whole year? You may have heard passages like this one in Matthew used to explain away terrible world events. We just watched as thousands of people were swept away in the Typhoon in the Philippines. Is that the kind of thing Matthew is talking about when he mentions flood waters? Today we honor World AIDS Day—those who were living during the AIDS crisis watched friends and family members die when little could be done to help them. Is this what Matthew is talking about when he describes people getting snatched away?
No. The people who try to make these connections are not good readers. The point of Matthew’s passage is not that terrible world events signal the Coming of the Lord; but that as people who are called to hope for the final Advent of Christ, we must remain alert. “Therefore, you must be ready” Jesus tells us, because the Coming of the Lord will present us with such a radical transformation that it will hit us like a flood. Prepare, so that when the time comes, you won’t get washed away in the commotion.
Advent is about alertness. It is about preparation for a time when the world will undergo a miraculous revival.
In our Isaiah reading for the day we get a glimpse of what this new world could be. It is written that in this day: “They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;” In this new world, weapons will become tools of cultivation. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” The coming of the Lord is about an end to the conflict and suffering we witness today, and the creation of a world of peace and right relationships. And this is just a taste of it. There is plenty of room for us to fill in our own hopes. Perhaps we imagine a world without gun violence, a world where our children are not teased at school, a world in which no one goes hungry. Advent is like a lookout post on top of a tall mountain. As we look toward the Kingdom of God in the distance, we have the opportunity to name what we see, to call out our own deepest hopes.
Today is World AIDS Day—I hope you have had a chance to see the quilt hanging at the back of the sanctuary. I was born at the height of the AIDS crisis and I remember, from a very early age, that feeling of fear and loss that plagued my parents and their friends. But even as this disease was wreaking havoc on our nation and our world, there were many people who stayed alert. Organizations began to spring forth—like Act Up—that questioned the drug testing and treatment process in the United States and demanded better access to life saving medications. Organizations and people brought the crisis into public view; The AIDS quilt was conceived by a gay rights activist named Cleve Jones in San Francisco in 1985 when he asked people at a march to write down the names of friends who had died of AIDS on placards. At first, people were hesitant. There was so much shame. But eventually people began to write down names of friends and loved ones–then, Jones and others stood on ladders and taped these placards to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. This wall of names looked like a patchwork quilt. About a year later, plans were underway to create the AIDS quilt. People from cities all over the U.S. sent in panels commemorating the lives of their loved ones. Today, there are more than 94,000 names represented. People cared for each other, people mourned together. AIDS still exists in our world, but because of the dedication of those—some of them among us–who remained alert—in the face of a terrifying unknown, it is now a manageable condition for those with access to proper treatment. There is still a lot of work to do to make that treatment available to everyone, but it is possible now.
During Advent we are invited to work together to prepare the way for the Coming of the Lord—for the coming of a new world. That can be scary, and daunting. But it is also so invigorating. During Advent we are allowed to envision a world without AIDS, without death even. So even as we do our Christmas shopping this season, let us not be afraid to use our imaginations—to look out over that high ledge and reach for the Kingdom in the distance.